It used to be that whenever I heard the word “research,” I immediately pictured white lab coats, chemical-filled test tubes, and solitary hours spent running diagnostics.
I pictured lonely, tedious research. My freshman year I decided I would under no circumstances participate in research during my time at Mercer. Thank goodness college is a time of expanding your horizons, because my narrow-minded impression could not have been further from the truth. Research is much more than spending days alone in a lab collecting data; it is using your education to find solutions to issues you are passionate about. It is working alongside others to make discoveries, expanding on what is known, and then applying what is learned to solving the problem together. Through Research that Reaches out, Mercer University allows its students to do just that.
Over the summer, I participated in a Mercer on Mission in Kenya. Dr. Lackey and Dr. Harshbarger led a group of twelve students to do water filtration research in the rural village of Sisit. On a previous trip, Mercer partnered with a local organization called African Exchange to provide the people of Sisit with biosand filters to clean their water, and our job was to figure out if those filters were effective. We collected water samples from about fifty homes throughout the village of Sisit, and also asked families if they had seen improvements in health since they had started using the filters. We tested each sample for coliforms, which signify the presence of bacteria and pathogens, in addition to testing hardness, pH, and turbidity. Our data, as well as the positive feedback on improvements in health we received from the families, showed that the filters effectively provide cleaner water. These results were very exciting not only because they proved the filters are working, but also because it showed the people have made a connection between clean water and better health. With the help of Africa Exchange, we were able to provide more water filters for families who did not have one, or whose filter had broken. Each family had to pay a small fee for a filter, and the members of the community had a meeting to explain how the filters were used in addition to reinforcing the importance of clean water.
Notice that the community helped pay for the filters; the leaders kept track of what families received a filter, and organized the informational meetings. The people of Sisit played just as big of a role in working to find a solution to unclean water as I did. They were invested in their success, and in finding a solution to their own problem. We did not just go in giving handouts, or trying to fix them. We met them in their homes. We talked with them, played with their children, and visited their farms. They taught us words in their native tongue, and how to make chai the Pokot way. We formed relationships with the people in the community. Foreign aid can often times be harmful because it leaves communities reliant on others to fill their needs. They are unable to solve their own problems because well-meaning aid has left them crippled, and without the confidence to find solutions to the issues they face. Taking time to form relationships and build a sense of trust allowed us to work together as equals to find a solution that would leave them self-sufficient, rather than dependent.
I learned so much during the three weeks I was in Kenya. I learned that saying no to hot chai tea when it is 100 degrees outside is not an option: Mama will bring you a cup full. I learned that water is precious, so we should not take it for granted. I learned that research can be conducted anywhere, whether it be Kenya, a lonely lab, or your own hometown. I learned that when it comes to research, you should always work together because everyone sees a different part of the picture. Most importantly, I learned that research should always reach out to assist people, not to fix them.